The oldest scars were smooth and dark, diagonal stripes across the right side of Ismail Ahmed’s back, beneath an open sore. The fresher w
Mr. Ahmed had been arrested by the Nigerian army on suspicion of helping Boko Haram, but the tears he shed were for his brother, Umaru. The soldiers had shot him dead, he said.
The men had been hiding in the mountains outside Gulak, northeastern Adamawa State, when the army advanced with vigilantes in February to recapture the town from Boko Haram.
“The vigilantes said we should come down and nothing would happen to us,” Mr. Ahmed said. “I went back. I stayed in my house for three weeks. Then the soldiers came and blindfolded me and took me to their base.”
He spent four days in a military prison, where he was flogged, and eight days in a police cell in the state capital Yola, before he was released without charge last week.
His brother, a farmer, had been hiding in another village and had waited longer to come down. His family did not learn that he was dead until a neighbour called last week.
“They said he was trying to get home when he met the soldiers who took him away and killed him,” Mr. Ahmed said.
Nigeria’s armed forces, with help from neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroun, have recorded a series of victories in recent months, retaking ground from the insurgents after years of routs and humiliating inertia.
Yet many Muslims who were displaced by the fighting are afraid to go home for fear of harassment from the military or reprisals from their Christian neighbours, who bore the brunt of Boko Haram’s savagery.
Saleh Jibril, who fled to a refugee camp in Yola, said that a friend had found his wife floating in a river with her hands tied behind her back after she tried to hike through the mostly Christian district of Michika, about 20 miles south of their home in Gulak, in March.
Salihi Ateequ, a member of the Adamawa State Muslim Council, said that his sister, Hinidiyatu Tijjani, also went back to Michika soon after it was liberated, to check on their mother who had stayed behind.
“She spent four days in Michika, but as she was coming back she was ambushed,” Mr. Ateequ said.
She was carrying an infant baby on her back. Both were hacked to death with cutlasses.
“The Christians in Michika believe the Muslims invited Boko Haram to come and kill them,” Mr. Ateequ added. “So now it’s vengeance and every Muslim is a target.”
The tensions in Michika predate Boko Haram. The town already had two market days, one on Saturday for Christians and one on Sunday for Muslims. It also had two rival water companies, selling plastic sachets of drinking water. GBM (God Bless Michika) Water was launched in 2012, residents said, because Christians refused to drink, or were unable to buy, the Muslim-owned Kaigama brand.
The road to Michika district was scarred with burnt-out shops and churches when The Times visited last week. School buildings were partially collapsed and the central mosque had been bombed by aircraft during the Nigerian advance.
At least four major bridges had been destroyed and a Boko Haram tank, emblazoned with the insurgents’ black logo, sat where it had been abandoned.
At a church in Bazza, the insurgents decapitated a life-size, fibreglass statue of St. Peter and burnt the parish records office.
In Michika, they painted over shop signs and notices, as if the very words were an affront to their mission to prohibit western education. Arabic words were scrawled on the walls and a bank appeared to have been looted.
“The shops are all closed,” said Cosmas Tizhe, a university lecturer. “Even if you have money, there is nothing to buy.”
Most of the people left there were either women or vigilantes. Local officials said that women returned before their husbands because they were less likely to be killed by Boko Haram and less likely to be suspected by the army.
“In the villages, almost all of the houses are burnt,” Peter Salihu Gogura, Michika’s Commissioner for Housing and Urban Development, said. “If the government comes in to rebuild these houses, definitely we can have peace, but if the government doesn’t act, we will have problems.”
Mr. Gogura, who has both Muslim and Christian names, said that the indigenous Christian Higgi tribe had a proud history of coexisting with the migrant Muslim traders, but warned that Boko Haram had strained relations to breaking point.
“When somebody goes home and sees his house has been razed and he has nothing to eat and nowhere to lay his head, it’s not easy,” he said. “My fear is that as human beings, if you go home to nothing, and you know the people who caused this, you may not see eye to eye with them.”
For Umaru’s widows, the decision not to go back was easy. “There is nothing for us to go back to,” said Hawa, 39. But Mr Ahmed said he had no choice.
“I have to get back to prepare the fields,” he said. “All we can do is pray to God to join our minds.”